Nothing Rehabilitative about Prison: Part 2

Mike’s Story

This is the second instalment in a series of two. In the first instalment, which you can read here, Mike shares about the dehumanising treatment he suffered in DRC, the friendships he formed, and his internal dilemmas over how open to be about his sexuality.

While in prison, one major source of distress for Mike (not his real name) came from the fact that he is estranged from his biological family. He has an adopted family, who are unfortunately not legally recognised as kin. They also reside overseas. For these reasons, his adopted family wasn’t informed about his whereabouts or his status in prison, and he didn’t receive any letters from them. It was torturous for him, to doubt whether they still cared about him.

“That killed me psychologically,” Mike says. “I felt as if the system was out to destroy me.”

This took a sinister turn at the crucial 4-month mark, which is when inmates are summoned before a panel of officers to have their fates decided. Three of the possible routes, as Mike outlines to TJC, are: 

  1. 4 months in prison, 2 months in the Lloyd Leas work release camp, and 6 months at home (with tagging); 
  2. 6 months in prison, and 6 months at home (with tagging);
  3. 12 months in prison.

Needless to say, the last option is the worst and most dreaded among inmates, because all you do is “rot” inside.

When Mike was called to speak to this panel of officers, the prison superintendent told Mike that his prospects for being transferred out of DRC were unfavourable because no family members had written letters to him. 

“The superintendent said, ‘If no family member writes to you, you have to stay here for 12 months.’” Mike remembers. “In my heart I was like, Bitch! The way you run things here, you’re destroying people. Captains of lives, my ass! It’s more like captains of destroying lives.”

Mike replied that he had asked the warden on numerous occasions to be allowed to write to his adopted family, but each time his request had been denied. The superintendent “turned to her colleague, who was falling asleep, and asked ‘Is this true?’ He was like, ‘Let me check, uh, uh…’ They said if no one visits you, chances are you’ll have to stay for 12 months.”

Several months before, another woman in charge of Mike had told him that there’s “no such thing as adopted family cos they might be drug addicts themselves”. It seemed that, at every juncture, those in power were resolved to not recognise the validity of Mike’s chosen family, and to crush any hope that he might derive from the outside world. Arbitrary bureaucratic procedures always took precedence over any semblance of human compassion.

But if there was not a single drop of the milk of human kindness to be squeezed from the higher-ups, Mike found support among his cellmates. Once again, they came to his rescue. During their prison visits, they told their family members to get in touch with Mike’s adopted family and explain his predicament to them. One of the cellmates even wrote the phone number of Mike’s adopted family on his palm and pressed it against the glass panel so that his own family could take it down. 

Much later, after being released, Mike would find out that, in truth, the prison rejected all his adopted family’s frantic and repeated requests to visit him. In the meantime, the officers were blatantly gaslighting him, lying that nobody wanted to visit him at all. The psychological damage that this caused – the self-doubt and the pain that he felt – was immense.

Finally, Mike received a visit from his colleague, who had contacted his adopted family. She told him that they were not permitted to visit him as they did not have the legal documents to prove their adoptive relationship.

“We don’t need court papers to show how close we are. But that’s how Singapore is like.”

“Coming from my cultural background, we don’t need court papers to show how close we are,” Mike sighs. “But that’s how Singapore is like.”

Lloyd Leas, and Release

The day to be transferred to Lloyd Leas Community Supervision Centre arrived, and everyone’s number was called except Mike’s. The person who’d come to collect them insisted that Mike’s number was absent from the list. “I think you need to turn over,” Mike told him. Begrudgingly, he turned the sheet over and muttered, reluctant to admit his oversight, “Ya, ya, you are also released tomorrow.” Yet another instance of casual bureaucratic incompetence that, to Mike, represented a matter of life and death. “Singapore in the 21st century, working in this mode!” exclaims Mike in disbelief.

Being at Lloyd Leas was, thankfully, a lot more tolerable for him.  It was a huge upgrade from DRC. Instead of DRC’s straw mats, they had beds to sleep on. They were also a lot less stingy with allowing visitors. Life had more structure, with work routines in place, and the meals were more palatable. The inmates at Lloyd Leas had much more freedom, and could watch TV and read newspapers during the weekend. Lenient wardens were in greater abundance.

Of course, their lives were still strictly regimented. Mike left Lloyd Leas for work at 6am, ended work at 5pm and had to return to Lloyd Leas by 7pm every day. His daily commute was plotted for him using Google Maps, and no deviation was permitted – not even to eat better food. The costs of medical appointments, if any inmate has to see the doctor, have to be borne alone, a particularly heavy burden in light of how meagre their salary is.

But there were also pockets of resistance and solidarity. Mike helped a dyslexic cellmate to write letters to his adopted mum, whose visiting requests had been rejected. The cellmate was “heartbroken”, being “the sort who gets upset easily”. 

Perhaps empowered by his cellmates back in DRC, Mike came up with a plan. He wrote the letter on behalf of the cellmate: “Mum, you should approach our MP because the warden refuses to allow me a visit from you.” The day after the letter was dropped off to be sent out, two wardens returned with it, having screened its contents. They demanded that the line be cancelled out with black marker. In response, Mike threatened to report their conduct to an officer of a higher rank. The wardens panicked, and immediately set about helping Mike’s cellmate. “We had a victory dance in the cell. Small little victories like this!” Mike says proudly. “You must threaten them! This is dereliction of duty.”

Another guy at Lloyd Leas, who was made to work at a fast food restaurant, had an allergy to certain spices that caused his eyes to swell terribly. His pleas to the Lloyd Leas officers were met with dismissal and inaction. Mike again stepped in, calling the cellmate’s sister after he was released from prison. He told her that she could threaten to report the Lloyd Leas officers to her MP. It worked like magic: the officers panicked, and instantly put the cellmate off work.

On Mike’s last day at Lloyd Leas, as the officers were congratulating him, they patronisingly told him not to repeat his offence. He countered, speaking his mind, “I can tell you a lot of people will do this again because of how they are treated. Mark my words, ma’am. They will be back because of how you all run things here.” 

“They will be back because of how you all run things here.”

This is the second (and final) instalment in a series of two. Click this link to read the first instalment.

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